The Bremerton School District placed Joe Kennedy on leave after he defied requests to stop praying on the field after games. He claims in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that his constitutional and civil rights were violated.

Share story

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, placed on administrative leave for praying on the 50-yard line after games despite the district’s order to stop, has sued Bremerton School District.

Kennedy’s lawsuit claims the district discriminated against him on the basis of his religion and violated both his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“No American should have to choose between their faith and their job,” said Mike Berry, senior counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a legal-defense organization that specializes in religious advocacy and has taken on Kennedy’s cause.

At a news conference outside U.S. District Court in Tacoma, where the suit was filed Tuesday, Berry said the Civil Rights Act bans the type of religious discrimination Kennedy was subjected to by the district.

Berry said Kennedy had a consistent and low-key habit of “taking a knee” and saying a prayer after players left the field since he began coaching at Bremerton in 2008.

But his practice became an issue last year ironically after a visitor from another school complimented Bremerton administrators on the coach’s activity, Berry said.

District officials asked him to stop after it came to their attention, and Kennedy initially agreed, but changed his mind after the Texas-based First Liberty Institute took up his cause.

Many players and neighbors sprang to Kennedy’s defense and joined him in defiant on-field prayer.

Various public figures did, too. Then-presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz invited him to speak at a rally in South Carolina, where he was among a handful of honorees. Donald Trump and Ben Carson tweeted their support. Former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and former congressman Steve Largent submitted an Op-Ed to The Seattle Times, saying Kennedy was “a model of a man that should be celebrated by the school district rather than told to hide who he is and what he believes.”

Kennedy’s actions, however, also drew concern from people who oppose displays of any religious action on school properties and prompted some students and teachers to invite members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle to attend a game.

At the time, Temple spokeswoman Lilith Starr said the group was a reminder of the core principles behind the separation of church and state.

“If one group is allowed to pray, everyone should be,” Starr said last year.

Related video: Satanists come to Bremerton

In response to the controversy over Bremerton assistant coach Joe Kennedy refusing to stop leading a prayer after games, students invited the Satanic Temple to the game. Kennedy prayed in the stands after the game. Read more. (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

Kennedy was suspended in October and terminated in November.

On Tuesday, the district issued a statement saying it was aware of the lawsuit, but that it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.

Last year, however, Superintendent Aaron Leavell released a statement in which he said, “I want to be clear — the District is in no way taking away an athletic coach’s freedom of expression. What we are doing is what every state-funded agency and school district must do: abide by the laws that govern us. Like every public school district in the nation, our teaching and coaching staff is not allowed to include religious expression, including prayer, in talks with students while on duty for the District.”

In December, Kennedy filed a discrimination complaint against the district with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He claimed he had witnessed other school employees in religious practices and felt he’d been singled out.

“I’m the only one they made an example of,” Kennedy said.

On Tuesday, Berry said there is no monetary compensation sought in the lawsuit. Instead, Kennedy wants to be reinstated as an assistant coach and he wants to be allowed to “quietly and briefly” pray after games, said Tacoma-area attorney Jeff Helsdon, who is also representing him.

Berry said that just because a person is employed by the government, in this case a school district, does not mean they give up their constitutional and civil rights.

“I’m just an average guy who wants to be out there coaching,” Kennedy said outside the courthouse. “It’s really sad that it’s come to this.”